Walking down Cecil Street on my way to work this morning, my mind is scattered like old newspapers in the November wind. I am watching an old black and white movie playing somewhere behind my eyes. I am not there to witness anything; the sparkling diamonds in the street, the naked trees reaching to the sky like a prayer, or to hear the soft voices of the whispering wind. Still asleep, I spill out over the familiar neighborhood, forgetting who and where I am. Then, at the corner at the top of the street, suddenly unannounced, like a surprise phone call from my mother, there is a subtle shift in my awareness. It’s feels like a door that has opened slightly, revealing a small strand of light. Magically, an inner space appears. From here, I watch thoughts roar past and, paying no attention to them, they dissolve into a white canvas.
“In the world but not of it,” I think to myself and suddenly everything disappears, like a drunken magician has pulled away the tablecloth and all the dishes have come crashing onto the floor.
I spend the majority of my life being continually swept along by the natural current of both outer and inner circumstances. I call this my life. If I am lucky enough, I remember to make an effort to go against this current. As the river of life rushes past, taking me along with it, I try to grab onto a branch to avoid being swept out to sea. For a moment I realize that I am not just this whirling world of mind. There is something else here and maybe, for a few seconds, I am not entirely lost.
All spiritual teachings speak of an inner quiet or silence. How can I simply observe whatever is taking place in and around me without manipulating anything. Can I find a place in myself from where I am able to observe from, like Christopher Isherwood said when he describes that he is, “a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
I look at the sky and ask, “Who am I?” If I am sincere with myself I realize that I haven’t got the foggiest notion. Sure, I have a lot of ideas about who am I am, but these are just a collection of old dusty photo albums and scratched vinyl that I have pillaged from garage sales over the years. It appears that I consist of a cyclone of thoughts and feelings, all vowing for supremacy over the other. If I am not presiding over this chaos by observing it, I am sold to the highest bidder, or the one who makes the most noise. In my case, it is usually the thoughts that are victorious. I am fooled into believing that is what I am. Continually I am taken by this process and repeatedly I fall asleep, drugged like an opium addict.
I search for an attention that can illuminate this mad house. A certain force that doesn’t waver, even when I am confronted with all the ugly and unbecoming parts of myself, or the predictable reactions from glimpsing something that doesn’t quite fit into the beautiful stories I have created. I need to embrace those to, like the second Bodhisattva Vow, “Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.”
I see that I take in the raw experience of life in and around me and then I create a commentary or a story out of it. The next things that happens is a reaction to that, where I say to myself, “I shouldn’t do this,” or “I shouldn’t feel this way.” This is my situation. I am all in pieces and it is this continual functioning that keeps me from experiencing each precious moment of my life. It’s like living in a fog that filters my real life through a mechanism that spins out stories and dreams. These fictions keep on rolling out and repeating themselves of who I am and who others people are. It’s a poor substitute for a real life that could penetrate, right into the bones.
Would it be possible to have an inner quality, or a force that is strong enough to stay with whatever is taking place — quietly watching?
There is an idea in the Gurdjieff tradition and Zen as well, that there are two worlds or two pools. The first is the world of our functioning which includes the ordinary mind with all of its commentaries, opinions and ideas as well as the emotions that move through me like the weather. The second world is completely different. It utilizes different energies and is composed of an entirely different order. This second word is always beckoning to us, but it is hidden behind the veil of the first world. Siddartha describes this second world beautifully as “a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.”
So where am I now? Do I have a wish to be? How do I experience this wish? Practically speaking, it is neither this nor that. How can I gather all that I am into this very moment? Can I make space for another level to appear? A level that is not something I have, but rather something that I am in, like a state of grace.
(Photo: Harriet Hoctor as human question mark, 1920’s – from Where is My Mind)